Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema
In Competition for the White Mulberry Award for First Time Director
A Guilty Conscience
毒舌大狀 (Duhk sit daaih johng)
Hong Kong, 2023, 133’, Cantonese
Directed by: Jack Ng
Screenplay: Jack Ng, Jay Cheung, Terry Lam
Photography (color): Anthony Pun
Editing: Chan Ki-hop
Production Design: Ceci Fok
Music: Iris Yiu, Hanz Au, Jolyon Cheung
Producers: Bill Kong, Ivy Ho
Cast: Dayo Wong (Adrian Lam), Tse Kwan-ho (Kam Yuen-shan), Louise Wong (Jolene Tsang), Fish Liew (Victoria Chung), Michael Wong (James Tung), Dee Ho (Prince), Renci Yeung (Evelyn Fong), Adam Pak (Desmond Chung), Bowie Lam (Luk Ting-hang), Vincent Kok (TK Ho), Madam Chung (Alannah Ong)
Date of First Release in Territory: January 21st, 2023
Now the top-grossing Hong Kong film of all time, A Guilty Conscience hit cinemas this January as an unlikely contender for a record-breaking run. A typical blockbuster it is not: the directing debut of screenwriter Jack Ng, the mid-budget film appeared as a courtroom drama in a city where that genre hasn’t traditionally been box-office gold. And top-billed star Dayo Wong was best known for his comic chops, not the sort of heavy drama promised in the trailer. But thanks to sharp writing, Wong’s plucky showing, timely social messages and more, Hong Kong audiences flocked to the film through the lunar new year holidays and the weeks beyond.
The one with the guilty conscience is Adrian Lam, a barrister who in 2002 fumbled a tragic case. Having quit his job as a judge, Lam joined a mate’s law firm on the promise of hanging out with business elites and reaping the benefits. His first case, working alongside colleague Evelyn Fong (Renci Yeung), was the defence of clearly innocent single mum Jolene Tsang (Louise Wong), charged with child abuse after her daughter was found injured. When the charge became manslaughter, Lam didn’t rise to the occasion. On finding out a member of the powerful, politically connected Chung family would take the stand, he saw instead a chance to get in with the uppermost echelon of the tycoon class. But Lam was way out of his depth: once witnesses switched stories and Lam was caught off guard, Tsang was sent off to jail.
A couple of years on, Lam is running a shabby little legal practice when Tsang’s case comes up again. A dying witness expresses regret for his false testimony, so Lam springs to action and convinces Evelyn to help again. Tsang is naturally reluctant to have Lam represent her again, but when she accepts and a retrial is allowed, the reinvigorated defence team is ready to try to clear Tsang’s name and face the fearsome influence of the Chungs.
Lam, Fong and assistant Prince (Dee Ho) first pull off a sneaky move to stop several top barristers working for the prosecution, but hard-core traditionalist barrister Kam Yuen-shan doesn’t tolerate such trickery and takes up the case. What follows is high-stakes combat in the courtroom and beyond as Kam tries to shut down defence arguments and the Chungs deploy fixer James Tung (Michael Wong) to force Lam and Fong to fail.
Sleek production values and eye-catching performances from established and rising stars give Jack Ng’s directing debut a strong lift, and the director’s pedigree as a writer shines through in the dialogue. The screenplay delivers thrilling exchanges in cross-examination, devious behind-the-scenes tactics, soaring speeches, and, at key points along the way, robust calls to ensure fair trials. “The legal system is not something you can play with,” warns Kam when he first appears, and later on both he and Lam stress the need to safeguard the court as a place of justice and fairness. Given the high-profile changes in Hong Kong’s courts in the past three years, such calls to support the integrity of the justice system could readily click with local moviegoers. Add in the theme of common people righteously standing up to the privileged class, and Ng had a hit on his hands. Within just a few weeks, A Guilty Conscience not only scored the box-office record for a local film but went on to hit the kind of takings expected of a Hollywood hit – a major achievement for Hong Kong cinema, and a mighty reward for filmmakers choosing cinematic paths seldom followed.
Jack Ng graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 2000 and immediately joined the film industry. After serving as writer and assistant director for Dante Lam’s Hit Team (2001), Ng went on to become a frequent collaborator of Lam, penning screenplays for films including Beast Stalker (2008), The Stool Pigeon (2010), The Viral Factor (2012) and Unbeatable (2013). He has also written for films by Soi Cheang (Love Battlefield, 2004) and Wilson Yip (SPL, 2005). His recent writing credits include Cold War 2 (2016), Monster Hunt 2 (2018) and Anita (2021).
2023 – A Guilty Conscience